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Why Adam Grant believes simplicity is simply overrated

The organizational psychologist talks to 'Mint' about his new book, the power of rethinking, the need for more empathetic leaders and what we can learn from covid-19

My hope in 2021 and beyond is that we will choose to do our rethinking more deliberately, says Grant
My hope in 2021 and beyond is that we will choose to do our rethinking more deliberately, says Grant (Getty)

"When we ask more questions, we not only come up with more answers but also better ones,” Adam Grant, a psychology professor at Wharton University, tells me when I ask him why it is important to rethink, especially at a time when covid-19 has made us reach for the comfort of familiarity.

We are meeting over a video call to talk about his new book, Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know. He encourages people to convey their information gaps to others and rethink stances to uncover the truth.

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Grant, the author of best-sellers like Originals and Give And Take, tells Mint in an interview that we each need to “think like a scientist”. Edited excerpts:

Why do you want people to unlearn and relearn?

For most of the world, 2020 was the year we were forced to rethink all kinds of assumptions we didn’t even realize we held. We had to do some massive rethinking.

In 2018, I had told a bunch of CEOs, I think we’re going to do a lot more hybrid work in the future, we’re going to have lots more people working remote, part-time, around the world. There was a lot of evidence already that people were more productive while working from home, and less likely to quit. Data said as long as you’re in the office half the week, there’s no downside. You could still have good relationships with co-workers, you could still be effective in collaborating. I wanted to run a remote Friday experiment to test.

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Every CEO said, ‘Nope’. They were afraid people would procrastinate. Now a bunch of those CEOs have said they might be permanently shifting to remote workforce, and the rest have gone to hybrid. It was such a missed opportunity, right? They could have had all of 2018 and 2019 [to work remotely], instead of waiting until we’re dealing with a global pandemic and trying to get things done while we have kids in online school at the same time.

My hope in 2021 and beyond is that we will choose to do our rethinking more deliberately. In a rapidly changing world, there’s a risk that the way you’ve always done things isn’t the best strategy. Even the things you think you’re an expert on, you might have become an expert for a world that doesn’t exist anymore.

Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know; WH Allen.
Think Again: The Power Of Knowing What You Don’t Know; WH Allen.

Can rethinking be taught?

I don’t think it’s easy for most people. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to get better at it. For a lot of people, rethinking requires skills they are uncomfortable with. One is valuing humility over pride. You have to be comfortable acknowledging your limitations—the discomfort of doubt over the comfort of conviction. You need to be willing to recognize that you’re wrong, which is difficult for a lot of people, especially those in leadership positions.

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More leaders are now talking about the importance of showing humility. Is this an effect of the pandemic?

I don’t know if humility is increasing, but I do believe it’s becoming more valuable. We have extensive evidence that when leaders are willing to say, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I was wrong’, that gives people the psychological safety to point out problems, to bring new solutions, to ask for help. These behaviours are critical for detecting and preventing errors, for promoting innovation, for solving problems. The big lesson I’ve taken away from all this research, especially during the pandemic, is the faster you admit you are wrong, the faster you can move toward being right.

One of the interesting ideas in your book is ‘binary bias’...

It is a robust finding in psychology that most of us have a tendency to take a complex spectrum of attitudes, opinions or beliefs, and simplify it into two categories. This allows us to make sense of a messy world. It’s a lot easier to deal with people, if you decide some are good and some evil. I think simplicity makes us comfortable. It is easier to make decisions, but it also means losing out on a lot of information which could have made us more efficient.

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So simplicity is not ideal?

When somebody talks about us versus them, or only two categories, we might want to ask, ‘What’s the third perspective? What’s the fourth angle that’s missing?’ Because we know that when people complexify narratives, when they complexify problems, when they complexify solutions, they become more open-minded and learn more.

That’s the kind of world I want to live in—a world, where people are open to different perspectives, and they’re determined to learn.

Do you think everybody has the capacity to do so?

I do. It’s so easy to think like a politician, right? And say, we’re right, you’re wrong. It’s so easy to think like a preacher, and believe you’ve found the truth and proselytize it. That stops us from rethinking. We could all afford to do a little less preaching, prosecuting and politicking and a little bit more thinking like scientists.

When I say think like a scientist, I mean that you don’t let your ideas become your identity, that when you have an opinion, you realize that’s just a hypothesis. You should be as motivated to look for reasons why you might be wrong, as reasons why you must be right. That means you have to listen to ideas that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good. And you want to surround yourself with people who challenge your thought process, not just the ones who agree with your conclusions. And that’s how you get to learning.

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What has been your biggest learning from the past year?

I’ll answer that a little differently. I’ve watched a lot of people struggle with this one question in 2020 and 2021: How do we deal with this covid-19 pandemic? There’s nothing that we can possibly find out that would help us deal better with a crisis as big as this. But if we frame it a little more broadly and say that a pandemic is a hardship, a kind of an adversity, then there’s something that could perhaps benefit us.

It’s true that most of us haven’t faced a pandemic before, but we have all faced loss, fear, uncertainty, and experienced disappointment and failure. Once you rethink the pandemic as a category of difficulty or struggle, you can actually think back to the kinds of difficulties and struggles you’ve faced before and learn lessons from your own resilience. That’s the one thing we can benefit from doing right now. We can ask ourselves, ‘Okay, what has helped me through loss before? What has helped me through fear before?’ If we can study our own past reactions, we can learn something that will help us in the present and the future. It’s a simple kind of rethinking and reframing that could perhaps be the answer for us.

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